Opinion

Netanyahu’s Coronavirus Coup: Israelis’ Basic Rights Are Now on Life Support

By imitating China and Iran, Netanyahu has put Israel’s democratic values in quarantine. He is creating a climate of fear – not of the coronavirus, but of the government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech on new measures to fight the coronavirus. Jerusalem, March 14, 2020
POOL New/ REUTERS

Early this week, the Israeli government passed new regulations for tracking the cellphones of coronavirus patients, or those suspected of being infected, circumventing the approval of the Knesset in the process. The technologies used for such tracking had up until now never been used against Israeli civilians. 

Monday, caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced  a "drastic expansion" of the tracking and geolocation of people who may have been in close contact with confirmed patients. In Netanyahu’s own words, those "are not minor measures. They entail a certain degree of violation of privacy." 

Will Israel's cyber spies let Bibi use coronavirus to kill democracy?Haaretz

He is absolutely right. And let us be clear about this: the moment a government starts using surveillance against its own citizens, we reach a tipping point in the infringement of our most fundamental rights.

Coronavirus is a threat we all acknowledge. We accept major restrictions to our rights, including our freedom of movement. But the moment we accept seeing victims of the virus – and surely, soon enough, the population at large – to be treated like a hostile military threat, we have let the virus shape who we are as a society.

We are about to let the government gain absolute control over our lives – and thus know who we are, where we have been, when and with whom and who we speak to and when – without any form of consent or restriction.

In doing so, Israel joins China and Iran on the list of countries that have chosen to address the spread of coronavirus this way. As Israeli citizens, we should stop and ask ourselves if this is really a club we want to be part of.

We should also ask ourselves if this is the best way to fight the virus in the first place. Is creating a climate of fear – not of the virus but of the government – the best way to ensure people with symptoms will come forward to get tested and ensure the people they have been in touch with are protected?

As countries start attempting to control the spread of the virus, we can start to observe what works: transparency from government and medical authorities, a well-informed population, a robust healthcare system and communities ready to lock down when necessary. 

This is a virus we can fight not by being scared of each other but by promoting transparency and solidarity to ensure that we, as a population, can do what we have to do to protect ourselves and others.

An empty school in Tel Aviv after Israel shut schools last week as part of precautionary measures against coronavirus. March 15, 2020
CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

Authorizing the use of those technologies without proper overview of the Knesset secret services subcommittee means we have lost the battle of accountability. There will be no scrutiny as to how those technologies will effectively be used, as no one will be there to uphold minority rights and protect the freedoms of those affected.

In those times, of crisis we had wished the government would have been guided by a concept dear to the former President of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak: the principle of proportionality. Proportionality requires that a balance is struck between the security that a nation needs and the protection of our rights. 

This is why any response to this health crisis should not exceed what is strictly necessary and proportionate, and should not be taken as an opportunity to compromise our democratic values and human rights under the cloak of defending them.

"Security is not above all else," Justice Barak once rightly noted. "The proper objective of increasing security does not justify serious harm to the lives of many thousands of Israeli citizens." We wished the government had taken these words into account when deciding to curtail our freedoms.

Eva Blum-Dumontet is a Senior Researcher for the London-based NGO, Privacy International. Twitter: @Arcadian_O